MONTPELIER -- Lawmakers are finalizing exceptions and clarifications to a proposed mandatory sick leave law.

Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington, said her House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs hopes to move an amended H.208 to the House Appropriations Committee on Friday or Tuesday.

The changes likely will carve out exceptions for some medical professions, substitute teachers and potentially agricultural workers. The new version also would assure employers that, if they already provide at least 56 hours per year of sick leave to full-time workers, they would not have any additional requirements.

H.208 would provide one hour of paid sick leave for each 30-hour work week at businesses of all sizes in Vermont. The time off would begin accruing on the first day of full-time employment. It could be used for employees' own health and safety needs, as well as those of their families.

Sponsored by more than 30 lawmakers, the proposal enjoys strong support even though it faces fierce opposition. Eighty-three witnesses in the past two weeks argued for and against the legislation.

Supporters, many of them organized by the Vermont Earned Sick Days Coalition with assistance from Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, delivered practical and sometimes emotional messages about the social and business benefits of offering earned sick time.

Their stories were studded with frank opposition to the bill from business owners and trade groups such as the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Vermont. These organizations say the regulation is unnecessary, inappropriate and poorly timed.

They also worry that, as written, the benefit will be redundant with existing provisions in the state and federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which offers unpaid leave to workers for similar reasons.

The primary aim of H.

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, questions Ed Larson (foreground) of the Barre Granite Association about his testimony opposing mandatory paid sick leave.
Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, questions Ed Larson (foreground) of the Barre Granite Association about his testimony opposing mandatory paid sick leave. (Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger)
208 is to foster better conditions for public health and personal safety. When people don't have to choose between staying home with the flu or earning enough money to pay the rent, the rationale goes, they are more likely to take care of themselves and thereby limit the spread of illness.

Similarly, victims of domestic violence might be more inclined to seek support and protection if they aren't faced with a cut in pay. Employment protections in domestic violence cases can help victims maintain the financial stability critical to their independence.

Very little argument, if any, has surfaced in the course of public testimony against these broad goals of health and safety.

"The issues you've defined in (H.208) are real-life social problems," said Ed Larson, executive director of the Barre Granite Association.

But Larson said that mandatory sick leave is not the solution. He said the regulation would cost companies dearly, whether through additional payroll costs or from the complexity of administering the benefits program.

William Driscoll, vice-president of the manufacturing trade group Associated Industries of Vermont, echoed many of Larson's concerns Thursday afternoon.

Driscoll said if a blanket provision is required, it would hamper employers' flexibility. Mandatory sick leave would also undermine contract negotiations, in his view. Now unions may choose to give in on benefits in exchange for higher pay, for example.

At a news conference Thursday afternoon by the Vermont Earned Sick Leave Coalition, several business expressed their support for H.208.

Wes Hamilton of the Three Penny Taproom and the Mad Taco, two Montpelier restaurants, said that requiring universal paid sick leave would level the playing field among businesses.

Hamilton said he does not offer paid sick leave because he doesn't think he can afford to offer a benefit his competitors don't provide. The restaurant industry's profit margin is too slim to absorb any added cost, Hamilton said. But he would like to extend it if all restaurants have to do the same.

Randy George and Liza Cain, co-owners of the Red Hen Bakery, also urged passage of H.208.

They used to believe they couldn't afford to offer benefits, George said. Now that they do, they credit their benefits package - including paid sick time - with boosting productivity at the bakery. They also receive fewer last-minute call-outs from work due to illness, because people don't push themselves as far before deciding to stay home, George said.

Jim Lazarus, senior vice-president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, spoke with the committee by Skype on Wednesday. His city enacted a paid sick leave bill in 2007.

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, found his testimony reassuring. "He expressed some general assurance that it's not as hard as people are making it out to be," Stevens said during a committee discussion Thursday morning.

Rep. Jean O'Sullivan, D-Burlington, said in an interview Thursday there are no filing requirements attached to the policy. She thinks tracking could be easily added to systems for quarterly wage reports that businesses already must file for employees. Any records related to sick time would only be scrutinized in the event of a complaint and investigation, O'Sullivan said.

It's not just paperwork that's got some employers worried, though. Many business owners also expressed concern that sick leave could be abused. This was a particular concern for companies that employee a more "at-risk" workforce.

Dawn Terrill of the cleaning service Janitech said she knows her workers and their habits. While many are conscientious, most sick days tend to fall on Mondays and Fridays, she said.

"I know that's not how sickness works. But I do know that's how life works," Terrill said. As a "bridge" employer willing to give work to convicted felons, for example, Terrill said she may feel disinclined to continue taking on employees with checkered pasts if she has to offer them paid benefits.

Currently the system of switching shifts for time off works fine, Terrill said. But she's concerned that guaranteed paid sick leave would discourage those shifts and encourage people to just take the day off, instead. That would drive up her payroll, she said.

Lazarus testified, however, that on the whole, San Francisco businesses experienced "no significant increase in the use of sick leave" after adopting the regulation.

O'Sullivan said employers can adopt any regulation they like as conditions to providing the sick leave: Requiring doctor's notes, for example, may cut down on incidences of sick days following the pay-day benders some witnesses talked about.

CHANCES OF PASSAGE

Should it pass the House, the bill would go to the Senate Committee on Economic Development, where Chair Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, has promised to take it up.

Gov. Peter Shumlin kept mum about the bill at a legislative luncheon hosted by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce in Montpelier on Wednesday. Shumlin said he would wait for the bill to be fully vetted by the Legislature before making up his mind about it.

Other top politicians at the event also tread carefully on the topic, saying they would not want it to disrupt business operations or competitiveness.

But House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, sounded a slightly different note.

"Even if we do not pass a bill this year, this is probably not an issue that's going away," Smith said Wednesday. "I would like to see us move the issue forward."

If Vermont passes the law, it would follow Connecticut as the only other state to mandate paid sick leave. Connecticut's law only applies to businesses with 50 or more employees, and it only accrues one hour of earned time off for each 40 hours worked.